Were there viable alternatives in 1917 and 1929?

On 29 November, the DOC Research Institute hosted the Were there viable alternatives in 1917 and 1929? conference at Lomonosov Moscow State University.

Sponsored by the political science department, the conference discussed whether there were viable alternatives to two crucial events in Russian history: 1917’s October Revolution, and the 1929 rollback of the New Economic Policy introduced by Lenin in 1921, which created a mixed market economy of small peasant farms, and an industrial sector comprised of large state enterprises, small cooperatives, and private firms.

The speakers, from Russia and Germany, explored what the alternatives to these events might have looked like, what lessons could be drawn from history, and how they might be incorporated into future policy decisions.

Vladimir Popov, research director for politics and economics at Berlin’s Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, opened the conference and discussed whether it would have been possible to avoid curtailing the New Economic Policy (NEP).

Popov contended that the NEP economy was extremely efficient. It looked very much like the Chinese economy in the 1980s, he argued, with large state-owned enterprises operating in the market, “with banking and transportation controlled directly by governments, and independent peasant farms of roughly equal size (after land reform) selling their produce on the open market.  And it grew at an average annual rate of close to 20% (1921-29).

If the NEP had not been curtailed, Popov explained, the Soviet Union could have developed even faster than it actually did with the command economy of the 1930s. However, only a command economy could have carried out the major structural shifts – moving resources from agriculture to heavy industry and defence – that were needed to win World War Two.

Jury Goland, a lead researcher at the Institute of Economics at the Russian Academy of Science, tried to answer whether there was an alternative to the Stalinist repression of the 1930s. He focused on Stalin and his approach to politics, noting that Stalin was a master in mind reading and building relationships with people who were important for his career.

Goland asked whether the curtailment of the NEP was carried out for purely political reasons – to eliminate political opponents (Bukharin, Rykov, Tomsky) that held pro-NEP views, or due to economic expediency. Stalin was known to have a tough personality, but at the time of his appointment, a crisis manager was badly needed. Lenin and other leaders understood that it was a mistake to appoint Stalin as General Secretary of the Communist Party. However, it was already too late to remove him, since Stalin had consolidated his powers and enjoyed substantial popular support.

One of Russia’s leading political scientists, Andranik Migranian, a professor of comparative politics at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, delivered a talk on why the Bolsheviks came to power. Migranian referred to Alexis de Tocqueville’s work as central to understanding the development of revolutions. Migranian explained that revolutions normally start not because living conditions change from bad to worse, but because they are already good and people demand a faster improvement in their living conditions.

Migranian explained that the rule of Tsar Nicholas II was the most liberal period in Russian history and quite successful economically, too. He accused the Russian elites of not supporting Tsarist rule, which, in his view, paved the way for revolution. Instead, it would have been better to begin substantial reforms slowly. In Migranian’s view, the absence of support among Russian elites opened the way to chaos and the subsequent establishment of a dictatorship. Migranian believed that the majority of Russians opposed the development of a merchant class.

Ruslan Grinberg, the former director of the Institute of Economics at the Russian Academy of Science, discussed lessons that were not learned from the Russian revolution. His main point was that Russian society is very fond of implementing radical theoretical models and following them through, irrespective of the consequences.

Grinberg pointed to the October Revolution as a typical example, arguing that the most extreme faction among the communists won over more moderate forces and introduced a radical political system. The same happened again when in the 1990s ultra-liberal market reforms were introduced in Russia that left many people without work and dramatically increased economic inequality.

A solution to this problem would be to strengthen Russian civil society and to increase the ability of political parties (for example, opposition parties) to find compromise, which would break the vicious circle between rejection of an authoritarian government and the subsequent call for a strong hand leading to a dictatorship. Furthermore, Grinberg sees striking similarities in terms of high levels of inequality between today and 100 years ago, and hopes for a peaceful settlement of conflicts.

Aleksei Savvateev, who is the rector of Dimitri Pozharsky university, commented on the presentations and questioned the ability of Russia’s opposition parties to find compromise. In terms of the negative consequences of the October Revolution, he is convinced that not only Lenin but the whole Russian intellectual and political class is to blame. Revolutions are made possible by the betrayal of the political class, the army and police, Savvateev said.

DOC researcher Klemens Witte also commented on the presentations made by the speakers and cited Grinberg’s point that one of the merits of the Soviet Union was that it modernised Central Asia. Witte said that one side effect of modernisation was that a huge famine followed cattle collectivisation and took a million lives. Moreover, the nomadic lifestyle of the indigenous people was almost destroyed.

Witte also asked Popov why there was no export of grain during the NEP if this was regarded as such a successful period for the restoration of agriculture, at the same time as when foreign currency for the establishment of heavy industry was badly needed.

The DOC scholar emphasised the fact that while the Soviet Union became the second biggest economy in the world in 1940, looking at GDP per capita would have provided a very different picture in assessing the overall success of the NEP and the command economy.

For a more detailed discussion of these issues, see the following publications:

V. Popov. and N. Shmelev. At the crossroads. Was there an alternative in 1929?

A. Migranian. Russia in search of a national identity (1985-1995), Moscow 1997

J. Goland. Discussions on the economic policy of monetary reform during the years 1921-1924, Moscow 2006.

R. Grinberg. The law of surplus justice: Unlearned lessons from the Russian October Revolution, New Newspaper, September 2017.